Last week, on 18 January, six Arab countries gathered in Abu Dhabi for the Arab Stability and Prosperity Summit. It brought together four Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries—UAE, Oman, Bahrain and Qatar—and two non-GCC countries, Egypt and Jordan. A few days earlier, another summit was held in Cairo between Egypt, Jordan and Palestine. The pace of high-level inter-Arab meetings is picking up, which shows that consultation is an ongoing process, and the participants are keen to review and coordinate positions on a range of regional and international developments of mutual concern. Their historic bonds are as solid as ever. This inspires optimism in the stability of bilateral and multilateral consultations, especially given their occasional collective talks with great powers, as was the case with the Arab-US and the Arab-Chinese summits.
A new “Arab regionalism” is unfolding. Unlike in the past, it is not coalescing around an “axis” or “special pact”. It is the development of a form or forms of systematic collaboration among Arab capitals whose common interests and concerns compel them to meet regularly at the summit level. It is a flexible form of diplomacy and policy-making that benefits all concerned while harming no one. It is not the type of thing my generation is familiar from a few decades ago. In those days summits were held to issue proclamations, calling for nothing less than the liberation of Palestine, Arab unity and mutual defence pacts. Today, the summits are more business-like. They involve following up, in an increasingly intensive manner, the process that began with the GCC’s AlUla Declaration, ushering in the end of the dispute with Qatar, talks with Turkey and the beginning of a rapprochement with Iran. Moreover, the presence of Qatar and Oman at the Abu Dhabi summit was a sign of the ability of Arab gatherings to include others. It was particularly encouraging to see the spirit of fraternity at work in their collaboration on such major global events as the COP27 Climate Conference and the thrilling World Cup.
Intensive high-level “consultation diplomacy” among Arab countries is crucial, not just because of how central Arab leaders are to shaping and conducting their countries’ policies, but also because of the need for more information and deeper insights into international realities and the general state of the world today. Arab leaders, like political leaders everywhere in the world, have to contend with the ongoing war in Ukraine and its impact. While Russia is pouring in hundreds of thousands more troops, NATO is pouring in more and more sophisticated weapons. The conflict itself continues to swing between Russian attacks and Ukrainian counterattacks and rounds of gains and losses for this side or that, as the destruction mounts in Ukraine, war fatigue mounts in Russia, and both sides remain enveloped by this deep diplomatic winter, to use the term of the international relations scholar Joseph Nye. Only Turkey has ventured a modest mediating effort.
As the Ukrainian conflict drags on, US-Iranian talks in the framework of the 5+1 negotiations on the Iranian nuclear programme remain suspended. Iran itself is aflame domestically, and Tehran is seething at Washington, its Arab neighbours and almost everyone else. The Iranian tinderbox effect appears to have spread to the Eastern Mediterranean where Israel has entered into a new stage of extremism that is taking that state country further away from the two-state solution with Palestine and further than ever from the secular foundations of the Israeli state. There is nothing in Netanyahu’s new cabinet that gives the impression that it will abide by previously existing agreements or respect the new sets of relations that have enabled Israel to open up to others in this region. In fact, Israel is growing less sensitive to its regional relations and the Netanyahu government promises to aggravate the complications.
All the aforementioned issues are on the agendas of the consultations that Arab countries are conducting in one framework or another. They know that, geographically remote as the war in Ukraine may be, that conflict not only affects European security but is also a global security concern that closely involves matters related to oil and gas, the Suez Canal, and energy and food, in general. They also know that developments in Iran are inseparable from developments in Israel. Netanyahu has said he wants further normalisation with the Arabs, but they see trouble brewing. He is constantly threatening to bomb Iranian nuclear assets while Iran is trying to be within striking distance of Israel whether through Hizbullah in Lebanon or via Syria. Damascus, for its part, has yet to make up its mind on whether or not to return to the Arab fold. It still has to identify its many enemies and determine how to engage in a reform process that will enable Syria to recover and rejoin the world.
One reason these consultations are so important is that most of the participants are engaged in extensive reforms. In order to sustain these processes, they must enhance their resilience under rapidly changing international circumstances. Reform, by its very nature, strengthens capacities and gives governments more means to influence and change their local and regional conditions. But as the reforms progress, the countries pursuing them grow warier of potential eruptions that could jeopardise their achievements. They are particularly nervous about possible surprises coming from the direction of a revolutionary regime such as the one in Iran which is currently doing battle against its own people.
They are also alarmed by the war in Ukraine. If for the moment that conflict seems to have settled into a kind of stalemate, it is in no one’s interest for Ukraine to be defeated or Russia to be degraded. Forcing either of the belligerents’ backs against the wall is the recipe for any number of dangers. Israel, meanwhile, is on the path to igniting a train of humanitarian disasters, displacing new waves of Palestinians from the West Bank in advance of occupying that territory entirely. Then if, as inconceivable as it may seem, a Palestinian state is declared in Gaza, if Hamas still rules there, no one will care much what Israel does with it, violently or otherwise. The Palestinian situation is rife with potential surprises, especially since there are still two separate Palestinian political entities, one in the West Bank governed by Fatah and the other in Gaza controlled by Hamas, with weapons teeming in both. As long as a single ruling authority does not possess a monopoly on the legitimate recourse to arms, the absence of surprises would itself be a big surprise.
As complex and interwoven as the issues are in the region and the world today, good news is to be found in the cooperative relations helping to build the combined capacities of Arab countries. The contributions they are making to removing obstacles and easing the pressures on various Arab reform processes will reap concrete economic, social and cultural rewards. But perhaps the most important facet is the essential national security component, which should include a regional security dimension. This is an area that inherently requires a cooperative framework. Naturally it has been the subject of considerable inter-Arab discussion.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.